On June 14, 2017, as I was going through an article on road safety published in The New Times my attention was drawn to a compelling picture of a handsome young man acrobatically standing on a sports bicycle. Joseph Areruya of Team Rwanda is a luminary in sports cycling and had just done Africa proud by becoming the first Rwandan to win a stage at a European UCI race.
He had covered 82.7km race in just 2 hours and 52 seconds. His closest contestant, Nikolai Cherkasov, a Russian, was behind him by 2 seconds. No mean achievement by any standard in this hotly contested race. The country was jubilant. Rwanda’s name was conspicuously fixed on the global map of cycling.
Rwanda is not a stranger in cycling. In May 2015, Rwanda hosted the 2015 African Mountain Bike Continental Championships, which was held in Musanze. The gains to the country as a result of hosting this world event are in records and needless to restate here.
The growth of cycling as a sport in Rwanda benefits from clear leadership in support of cycling, not only as a sport but also as a means of transport. The presence of the President in cycling events, and his support to sporting activities in a variety of ways is a clear statement on how dear he holds cycling.
Cycling is sport and a means of transport with many attributes. One, besides its dramatic appeal as a sport and tourist attraction, it is a mode of transport in all parts of the world, irrespective of income levels. In sub-Saharan Africa, bicycle’s share of transport is substantial. In Rwanda, it remains a major means of transport both in rural and urban areas.
Two, cycling can result in beneficial health outcomes to the people if it is adopted as a sustained means of transport. This is critical because of fastchanging trend where the major causes of deaths are fast shifting from communicable to non-communicable diseases.
In Rwanda, the general improvement in public health has resulted in sharp increase in life expectancy. According to the Health Situation Analysis of the African Region, compiled by the WHO Region Office for Africa in 2016, life expectancy at birth for Rwanda increased from 48 in 1990 to 65 years in 2013.
Accompanying this improvement are the changes in disease patterns. Non-communicable diseases (heart conditions, obesity, bone diseases, arthritis, cancers, neuropsychiatric conditions) and injuries are increasingly becoming major causes of morbidity and mortality in the country. Health Management Information System for Rwanda indicated that, from January to December 2013, noncommunicable diseases accounted for about 52 per cent of all district hospital outpatient consultations and 22.35 per cent of hospitalisation. World Health Organization Noncommunicable Diseases Country Profile for Rwanda shows that noncommunicable diseases cause 34 per cent of all deaths in Rwanda. These numbers are not mere statistics. They reflect the health of the population for which urgent intervention is required.
Fortunately, risk factors for these noncommunicable diseases are known. Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for noncommunicable diseases. A survey of risk factors for noncommunicable diseases in Rwanda in 2012/2013 revealed that the prevalence of physical inactivity in the population is 21.4 per cent.
Intervention strategies by the Ministry of Health aimed at preventing non-communicable diseases include encouraging people to be physical. Sustained cycling as a means of daily transport meets the criteria that can increase physical activity enough to provide beneficial health outcomes to the public.
This is a critical area for cooperation between the Ministries of Health and of Infrastructure, and even the Ministry of Sports and Culture, to work together to create an enabling environment in terms of planning for safety of cyclists to encourage cycling. Countries like Sweden, Netherlands and Germany, which have managed to encourage cycling both as a mode of transport and as a health strategy, have experienced remarkable reduction in deaths.
A World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe book, entitled Transport, environment and health, edited by Carlos Dora and Margaret Phillips, documents the health benefits of sustained and regular cycling. The report shows that the health benefits of sustained and regular cycling, as a means of transport, include: a 50% reduction in the risk of developing coronary heart disease; a 50% reduction in the risk of developing adult diabetes; a 50% reduction in the risk of becoming obese; a 30% reduction in the risk of developing hypertension; and a 10/8-mmHg decline in blood pressure in people with hypertension.
Three, cycling is an environment friendly transport mode when compared to motor vehicles. The contribution of motor vehicles in ground level urban concentrations of air pollutants is documented. Motor vehicle traffic fumes contribute substantially to the predicted health consequences of climatic change.
A study of air pollution in Rwanda with reference to Kigali city conducted by the National University of Rwanda revealed that Kigali has recently experienced substantial increase in the number of motor vehicles. There has also been a significant increase in the combustion of fossil fuels and the release of gaseous pollutants and particulates.
The societal benefits of cycling are many. Unfortunately, bicycle use as a means of transport is quite fragile and can be threatened by the dominance of motor vehicles if its growth is not nurtured. With a motor vehicle-centred transport mindset, much planning and attention is likely to be biased in favour of motorised transport. Vulnerable road users like cyclists are rarely considered in infrastructure planning and implementation.
Safety of bicyclists is neglected in transport planning in many cities in sub-Saharan Africa. The result of this is that many bicycle users are injured or killed on the roads. Consequently, many are discouraged from using them as a means of transport, and thus the health benefits that come from the use of cycles are missed.
Fortunately, for Rwanda, goodwill exists for the growth of cycling as a transport mode which is factored in planning and respected in implementation. The Ministry of Infrastructure in its Public Transport Policy and Strategy, published in 2012, for example, includes development of infrastructure and maintenance standards that recognise cycling as an essential mode of transport. This is a clear policy recognition of the need to create a supportive environment for growth of cycling.
Creating enabling environment for cycling can be of great benefit to the population. It can encourage cycling as a sport and environmentally friendly means of transport that is also efficient in terms of space on the road and parking. It can also contribute significantly to the improvement in the health of the people by preventing the occurrence of non-communicable diseases.
The writer is a lecturer at Mount Kenya University, Rwanda Campus.